CLEVELAND — The first person to be held accountable for the multistate, multimillion-dollar scam known as the U.S. Navy Veterans Association was sentenced to five years in an Ohio prison on Wednesday.
Blanca Contreras, 39, a Tampa woman who falsified documents and cashed nearly $500,000 in checks from the fraudulent charity's accounts, dropped her head to the defense table and wept as the sentence was handed down by Judge Kathleen Ann Sutula in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas.
After completing her sentence, Contreras will have five years of court-supervised release. She has lived in the United States since she was 5, but is a native of Mexico on a work visa and could face deportation after prison.
In June, Contreras pleaded guilty to engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, aggravated theft, money laundering and tampering with records in connection with her four-year involvement with the Navy Vets. Under the plea deal, Contreras' daughters, Stacie, 24, and Nancy, 21, who had also been involved with the organization, received immunity.
Prior to sentencing, Contreras apologized for her role in the elaborate hoax, which raised nearly $100 million to help veterans but provided few charitable services. The judge called the Navy Vets "a criminal enterprise of mammoth proportions."
"I have the deepest remorse," said Contreras, a slight figure in handcuffs and dark blue jail garb. "I learned a lesson not to be so trusting. I am a mother of five. I ask for mercy."
Her eldest son, Arturo Siquentes, 22, a U.S. Army specialist stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., sat silently in the courtroom, the only family there. Contreras has other sons, Joseph, 13, and Shawn, 14, who is severely disabled. All live in the Tampa Bay area.
During the 40-minute hearing, Contreras' public defender, Walt Edwards, argued that his client, who only completed eighth grade, was manipulated by the Navy Vets' founder, who called himself Bobby Thompson.
"Thompson introduced her to people she'd seen on TV," Edwards said of Contreras, who attended political fundraisers with Thompson where she was introduced to President George W. Bush and his wife, Vice President Dick Cheney, Sen. John McCain and Republican strategist Karl Rove. "It was all sort of exciting to her."
But assistant Ohio attorney general and special prosecutor Brad Tammaro said Contreras continued to siphon money out of the Navy Veterans' checking accounts for about eight months after Thompson disappeared from view in late 2009.
"There was no pressure upon her, no Bobby Thompson for that time frame," Tammaro said. "That indicates her degree of involvement."
On numerous occasions, Contreras also signed Navy Vets' registration papers in several states, including Ohio, identifying herself as acting secretary, acting treasurer or chief financial officer and attesting to the authenticity of its members.
"Those documents indicate she had more of an active role than what has been admitted by the defense," said Tammaro.
Ohio's investigation continues, he said. His office also is cooperating with several states as well as federal authorities to find Thompson, who has been indicted by Ohio on multiple counts of theft and money laundering. A year ago, Ohio authorities also charged him with identity theft after discovering he had stolen the name of a man in Washington state.
Navy Veterans was a seemingly well-connected and wealthy nonprofit before being exposed as a fraud in a St. Petersburg Times series in March 2010. National and state offices were UPS mail drops, officers and members were nonexistent, and few donations were reaching military veterans. Thompson, who formed the group in 2002, ran it nearly single-handedly out of an Ybor City duplex.
Contreras' involvement began in August 2006 after she moved a few doors down from Thompson. She began running errands and picking up mail for Thompson. By October 2007, she was writing and cashing tens of thousands of dollars in checks from Navy Veterans accounts.
During summer 2009, according to Ohio investigators, she wrote $58,300 worth of checks from the organization's accounts in July and $84,800 in August.
Contreras, who had worked in a citrus processing plant, as a certified nursing assistant and doing cleanup on construction sites, had no other known employment during her time with Navy Vets.
But Contreras' attorneys insisted that Contreras simply passed the money to Thompson and got at most a couple hundred of dollars a week for her services, plus use of a Ford F-150 that had been donated to the Navy Vets.
William Thompson, another of Contreras' Cuyahoga County public defenders, said after the verdict that she was simply a "conduit" for moving money to Thompson, who gave nearly $200,000 in contributions to political candidates in Florida and elsewhere.
"There's no indication she's in possession of any of these funds," he said of Contreras, who was renting a two-bedroom home in Clair Mel at the time of her arrest.
"Bobby Thompson picked his victim well," Contreras' attorney said. "She was his mark, who felt obliged to help military personnel. Then it spiraled down into what it's become. She's the only game in town. She's the only one standing before the court."